Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A River Runs Through It

Sunrise on the James River, 2012
(Click to see larger)

Sometimes a camera phone is an acceptable substitute for a good camera. But sometimes, like the other morning in Richmond, it just wasn’t enough.
I didn't have my "good camera" with me. The trip was all business, starting early in the morning and going late into the night for two days. I hadn’t expected to have time for pictures and, to be honest, I should have been getting a little more sleep instead of getting up to watch the sun rise. But my eyes weren't completely closed to photo opportunities. The morning's sunrise on the James River, too, was too gorgeous to miss.
I lived in Richmond from 1970 until early 1983. This was a time when many cities were still ignoring the rivers at their doorsteps. Where you see modern buildings in this picture was mostly scrub woods and parking lots when I was there.
To get to the river in downtown Richmond in those days you had to be prepared to break the law. The riverfront was nearly all private property. You had to cross railroad tracks and trestles and get across the remnants of the Kanawha Canal. Railroad police were especially vigorous in prosecuting those who trespassed in their right of ways.
The Kanawha Canal is an interesting feature of Richmond’s riverfront. George Washington surveyed and designed the canal, which during the 1700s and 1800s carried goods and people from the western part of the state to its final lock in the eastern end of downtown Richmond. Because the geological “fall line” that marks the transition from “upland” Virginia to the flatter coastal plains runs just east of Richmond, the James River is mostly rocky rapids as it plunges through downtown Richmond on its way to the wider and calmer waters just east of town. Even on its calmest days, the rapids can be extremely dangerous.
When I lived in Richmond, it looked as if nothing had been done to the Kanawha Canal since Washington’s time. Where you could locate sections of the canal you would find rusty and leaking locks, sunken boats, discarded industrial machinery, abandoned vehicles and trees growing out of the canal bottom. When there were problems at the city’s wastewater treatment plant, just up river, raw sewage would occasionally be dumped into the canal.
Today, Richmond embraces its riverfront. Sections of the Kanawha Canal have been cleaned and restored and are now among the city’s most popular tourist attractions.
There aren’t many office buildings in this scene because most of the modern downtown was built well uphill from what you can see here. Richmonders are still wary of the river. Even after a robust floodwall was built, developers are leery of getting too close to the still occasionally wild river.
I had higher hopes for this picture because it was the first time I’d seen this view from an elevated perspective. This picture was made using the Photosynth app I mentioned the other day. I wish the quality were better because the transition from the brighter sky of the east to the darker sky of the west displayed a richer spectrum of colors than can be seen here and set off the moon a lot better. A better camera would have captured more of the subtlety of those colors.
Sometimes a phone camera can be an acceptable substitute. But when your memory holds a much richer memory of the moment, all the camera phone picture does is drive you crazy at the thought of what could have been. 


  1. We've just switched carriers and our new "stupid" phones have a 2MP camera. I took 2 shots and decided to forget the camera was even there. That said, I'm retired and can get away with carrying a DSLR everywhere I go.